SCOTTISH farmers have issued a staffing SOS over a 3000 worker shortfall.

Those who have lost their jobs due to coronavirus shutdowns are urged to consider a move into horticulture as berry growers struggle to prepare for this season’s harvest.

The nearly-20 members of the Angus Growers organisation produced more than 12,400 tonnes of fresh fruit for UK consumers last year.

The sector is largely reliant on overseas labourers, thousands of whom perform seasonal jobs in Scotland every year.

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But this year bosses believe they are 80% short of the required workforce as Covid-19 travel restrictions prevent those from other countries from coming back again.

Last week the UK Government confirmed workers involved in food production, processing, delivery and sale would be classed as critical workers in a bid to ensure supplies do not dry up.

Now Angus Growers is targeting newly-redundant workers to get its produce to shop shelves.

The collective says it is taking steps to ensure operations comply with coronavirus social distancing guidance.

Soft fruit grower James Porter, who is also horticulture chair of farmers union NFU Scotland, said: “The health and wellbeing of our staff is of paramount importance, and we are following the latest UK and Scottish Government advice and guidelines relating to Covid-19. This includes restricting access to sites to essential visitors only, controlling who comes in and out, splitting a farm’s workforce into teams and keeping these teams isolated from one another, social distancing, site lock down measures and disinfecting procedures.

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“Thankfully, the risk of spread among farm workers is relatively low due to the open-air nature of harvesting activity.

“Farms, unlike offices, are large places where people can spread out.

“We want to reassure the public that if any workers do develop symptoms and need to self-isolate, farm accommodation is in “caravan park” style permanent units sleeping three or four persons, which means anyone suffering symptoms can isolate easily in a dedicated unit and have food brought to them for the period of time needed.

“There is an opportunity here for us all to work together to feed our nation. We desperately need workers to help us harvest our berries and ensure the UK public can enjoy healthy, nutritious food during this period of uncertainty.”

The crops include strawberries, raspberries, brambles and cherries. Porter said: “We are entering an unprecedented time. As restrictions on our day-to-day lives increase and challenges build, the Scottish horticultural industry has a critical role to play in helping us maintain our health and nutritional wellbeing.

“For many years the Scottish berry industry has relied on recruiting workers from mainland Europe to provide seasonal labour to pick our crops due to a severe lack of availability of local workers. Due to ever growing travel restrictions aimed at limiting the spread of the coronavirus, we are now facing a shortfall of almost 80% of the workers required in Scotland to pick our crops this season.

“I know that many people are facing redundancy across the travel and hospitality industries and I would encourage anyone who is looking for work to visit our new dedicated recruitment site and apply.”